Living in L.A. for 7 years, awakened me to the daily reality of people begging on the streets. People who beg are people who have lost something, perhaps everything. They are asking to be filled by passersby who may or may not have anything to share. Being a foreign student to the United States without a car meant that I walked pretty much everywhere. Each day I was confronted by people in need. From the two to three mile walk from school to my small, shared apartment, to the supermarket, along busy streets and through a drug zone, I saw pain. The plight of the homeless in that sprawling city is quite staggering. When I first saw people without a home, without a job, even without hope I felt overwhelmed to know what to do. Helping out at a dinner for homeless people at the church I attended seemed small, but it was an attempt by our community to make some 40-50 people’s lives a little better each week and to introduce them to Christ.
The problems with homelessness in the United States are complex and various, but when people feel the need to ask, or even beg for something, you know that it is a serious situation. We are talking about basic human needs. Usually, the more basic the need, the more potentially serious the condition. In this week’s lesson, Paul sees a great need in the churches of Galatia who have become entangled in a net of legalism that has starved them of the gospel. But their condition is especially precarious because they don’t seem to realize the danger they are in. Paul’s solution is to plead with them. His answer: become like me. The NASB translates, “I beg of you, brethren [brothers and sisters], become like me, for I became like you. You have done me no wrong” (Gal. 4:12). Is it ok to ask, to plead with or even beg people to become like us? Isn’t that presumptuous? I mean, how could an entire church, or region of churches be wrong about something they were once clear on? Is it possible for individuals, yes even churches, to forget the way of truth by which they came to Christ and how the Lord has led them in their past history?
Paul not only wants to straighten out the believers who have gone astray, he wants to let them know how much he understands their dilemma and that he personally cares that they find their way out. When he says, “For I became like you…” we can only presume what he means. Paul was a Pharisee but Christ led him out of that way of life to receive the truth about Himself. Paul wants the Galatians to imitate him in his loyalty to Christ and the gospel. He has just spent the first extensive part of this letter outlining how they have been deceived into thinking that circumcision is required and that the keeping of the law is the basis for salvation. Gentile Christians are like Abraham, who received the promised blessings by faith. All of these things, the Holy Spirit, the adoption as sons and daughters, the promised inheritance, righteousness, and God’s blessing are all received by faith, not by getting circumcised or by keeping the law. His statement ‘become like me’ is so that they will disentangle themselves from false teachers and listen to Paul, who himself was set free from base legalism in his thinking and behavior to receive Christ.
The rest of Paul’s statement in verse 12 suggests Paul was in some kind of trouble. He says to the Galatians: “You have not injured me at all” (Gal. 4:12). The situation points to Paul’s dilemma, his pain over his personal suffering. The apostle was in a scary situation. While we don’t know all the details, it was enough to derail his missionary journey plans. That is perhaps why in part, he ended up in Galatia ministering to the churches he established there. He reminds them, “You know that because of physical infirmity I preached the gospel to you at the first. And my trial which was in my flesh you did not despise or reject, but you received me as an angel of God, even as Christ Jesus” (Gal. 4:13-14). In other words, Paul wasn’t blaming them at all for the situation he found himself in, even though it led to him meeting them and establishing a church there. In ancient times, people associated suffering and pain with divine rejection or punishment. They would not necessarily accept or listen to the spiritual instruction of such a person. But not so with Paul. They did not reject him over his condition. On the contrary, they treated him as though he were a special individual, a messenger sent from God.
However, the situation has turned sour. Paul says he has become to them like an enemy. “What then was the blessing you enjoyed? For I bear you witness that, if possible, you would have plucked out your own eyes and given them to me. Have I therefore become your enemy because I tell you the truth?” (Gal. 4:15-16) Losing friends is difficult, especially when it is over a situation involving a third party. When you cannot control what people say about you – gossip, slander, insinuation or suggestions that you don’t know or understand “The Truth,” is painful. Paul experienced it all. To top it off, it was happening to the very people he had led to Christ! They were his spiritual babies and they had enjoyed a beautiful relationship. Paul reminds them that they would have done anything for him once upon a time. But now he is like an enemy to them. Physical suffering is bad, but it seems like Paul’s mental anguish over this situation was worse.
Dealing with the Problem
Conflicts come in many shapes and sizes. It may seem relatively easy to change the way people behave if they are under your command. An army general expects soldiers to obey, to respond on command. Parents have different expectations regarding their children over obedience. But all parents want a quick response from a child that is in immediate danger. If a child starts to run toward a busy road, the parent who yells, “Stop!” and runs frantically after them will not likely end up being investigated by child protective services unless negligent. Parents are supposed to protect their children and should expect a measure of obedience when it comes to child safety. But it’s one thing to change someone’s behavior, it is another to change their mind. I recall a man years ago that was deeply unhappy at his workplace where he observed many things that were wrong. He was pressured and obligated to carry out his work in an unnecessarily stressful, draining environment. He said to me once, “They might be able to tell me what to do and I do it, but they will never have my mind.” He may have been in difficult circumstances, but he was a man with a dream. He had a fire in his belly that kept him going. His vision and planning for the future helped him rise above his circumstances. Submission in his action did not equate to submission of the mind.
Influencing the mind is one of the most powerful ways to reach people. This is why I believe that Paul goes to the extent he does to break down the situation to the Galatians. He spells out the problem and the solution. Then he makes his personal plea explaining to them how, in fact, these false teachers are manipulating them. “They zealously court you, but for no good; yes, they want to exclude you, that you may be zealous for them. But it is good to be zealous in a good thing always, and not only when I am present with you” (Gal. 4:17-18). These sneaky deceivers were ‘courting’ the believers and wanted to exclude them. From what? Perhaps they were jealous of Paul’s relationship with the Galatians and wanted them to follow them exclusively, rejecting Paul and the gospel message of salvation. Paul was not seeking followers for himself he wanted them to follow Christ! In contrast, the false teachers were possessively seeking followers for their way rather than the way of Christ. That is why Paul tells them to become like him. He forsook everything for Christ and the gospel, including his former life of legalism. And so he encourages them to be zealous for good things.
Regarding the man I knew years ago, when I saw him several years later, I asked him how things were going. It appeared little had changed in his situation. I asked him about his dream and he shrugged his shoulders as though he hardly knew what I was talking about. His passion was gone. The light in his eyes was not there. Something had died and the fire had gone out. Instead of the spiritual, thinking, creative man with a fire in his belly for sharing the gospel, he seemed to have given up and was robotically carrying out what he did before. Freedom to think and to choose begins in the mind, but when we lose our passion for God, we just stay in the same old rut. When we stop actively growing in our faith, it is like something dies inside and we never reach our potential as God’s servants. With regards to Paul and the Galatian believers, he didn’t want them to lose their zeal and passion for Christ. Their zeal had been misdirected into a false teaching that would ultimately snuff out their spirituality and relationship with Christ.
The solution for the Galatians was not to give up on the message of the gospel, and most importantly, not to give up on Christ. They needed to be reminded that we come to Christ by faith. There is no doubt that Paul cared deeply for his converts to Christianity. He was mortified that they had been led astray into the very forms of legalism that had engrossed his life and thinking until he met Christ. He writes endearingly to them, “My little children, for whom I labor in birth again until Christ is formed in you, I would like to be present with you now and to change my tone; for I have doubts about you” (Gal. 4:19-20). Like a parent who cares for a newborn baby, Paul wants to labor again for them to be in an intimate relationship with Christ. The gospel is central to knowing Jesus personally. The solution is to renew their commitment to Christ. Their former passion and the fire in their belly for Christ and for truth must not die. The same is true for Seventh-day Adventists. Having Christ formed within means we will never need to beg, to go about spiritually starving trying to obey God’s commands without a relationship with Him. Having Christ formed within means we will have a vibrant passion for God and a deep care for the welfare of others. We will not forget that it is Christ who is pleading for us. He is pleading for all to join their lives to His own glorious life and to experience the blessings He has for us now and in the future.